By Michael Mullins CCNA, MCP
21 December 2006
Even if your organisation takes every possible precaution to protect its
data, a security breach is often inevitable. What do you do if it
happens? Mike Mullins offers some pointers for notifying those affected.
News broke recently about one of the largest known security breaches at
a university. A database break-in at the University of California, Los
Angeles has reportedly exposed the private information of about 800,000
While this is the latest in a long line of similar stories, don't let
the huge number of potential victims sway your attention. When it comes
to security breaches, it's important to remember that old adage about
quality vs. quantity.
Data breaches aren't just about a hacker breaking into a network and
stealing information. In fact, they come in all shapes and sizes:
* A data breach can occur with a lost or stolen laptop that has
someone's social security number.
* A data breach can occur with a lost BlackBerry that has personal
information about employees or customers.
* A data breach can occur with a fax that includes financial information
that's thrown away instead of shredded.
In other words, a data breach can happen any time an unauthorised
individual has access to sensitive or private information. It's
important to remember that a variety of factors can lead to this
Regardless of size, every network will experience some form of data
breach at some point. And users are becoming increasingly more savvy
about identity theft and sensitive to the long-term damage it can cause
to their finances.
So when the inevitable data breach happens, what do you do? Establishing
notification procedures in advance will help you better deal with the
problem when it occurs. Planning now will help mitigate the damage from
a customer/employee relationship standpoint later -- and it's the right
thing to do.
When a data breach occurs, you obviously need to notify those affected.
You definitely do not want to tell people that someone accessed their
personal information in an e-mail. Users could easily mistake such an
e-mail as a phishing attempt and delete it without reading it.
While this is the electronic age, there's a better method for delivering
the bad news -- snail mail. The postal service will ensure delivery to
the person -- and usually even if they've moved to another address.
Deciding how to notify people is the easy part -- deciding what should
go in that notification can be a lot trickier. First of all, describe
Don't give out information that could compromise the investigation, but
do tell people in nontechnical terms how it happened as well as what
information the breach exposed or lost. Tell them what your organisation
is doing to remedy the situation, and make sure you include contact
If identify theft is a possibility, explain how they can try to protect
themselves. Tell people how to contact the credit reporting agencies to
put a fraud alert on their accounts.
In addition, the Identity Theft Resource Center is an excellent source
of information. Include a link to the Web site in your correspondence,
and encourage people to take active steps to protect their financial
If law enforcement is involved in the case, provide the contact
information for the officer working the case, as well as the case report
number. This is information people may need to repair credit or obtain a
job if they become a victim due to the breach.
Finally, if the breach is wide enough, contact the credit reporting
agencies first to determine whether identify theft is taking place as a
result of the breach. If you uncover evidence of identify theft, offer
some form of credit monitoring service in the notification. This could
mitigate the damage done to both the individual and your company.
While your organisation should take every security precaution to protect
its data, a security breach is often inevitable. Too much information
stored in too many places provides too much temptation.
Losing control of someone's personal, privacy, or financial information
can put your company at risk in many ways. How you handle the loss after
the fact will speak volumes to your employees and customers (both
current and future). Developing some simple procedures before a loss
occurs and implementing them when it happens can go a long way to
mitigating the damage.
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